Wednesday 17 January 2024

Kolae, Borough Market

Everywhere you look the cost of living crisis bites, and few areas is that more evident than the restaurant industry. If you're a regular anywhere you will have noticed your favourite dishes and tipples creeping up 10%-20% every few months, seemingly in an existential race with energy prices to dare you to contemplate which you can cut back on first. Being a hopeless restaurant addict, I'd rather put a few extra layer of clothes on and sleep under a second duvet than miss out on at least an occasional meal out (although you will notice my rate of posting being down recently for that very reason), but I'm not so naive to think it's that easy for everyone. And let's not think for a second that the restaurants like charging these prices - everyone's stuck in the same horrible cycle of inflation and cost-cutting. Very few are immune.

When a place comes along that offers great food for less than a fortune, then, it's a genuine pleasure to report on it. So, hot on the heels of the Dew Drop Inn's extraordinary £39 lunch menu comes Kolae, from the Smoking Goat Som Saa* (see edit) team, offering fresh and very reasonable Thai food in the heart of London's Borough Market.

Now, you may have skipped to the end of this review and noted that £90pp is not, even in these troubled times, anything that could be mistaken for super low budget. But in my defence - and theirs - we hugely overordered for two people and the amount of (incredible) food we ended up with could have at least fed 3 or 4, making the total per head steering a lot more towards the £ or ££ category.

From our high seats at the kitchen table (is there any better place to sit in these kind of places?) we watch as chefs enthusiastically prepare a variety of dishes both over charcoal and a (occasionally terrifyingly deglazed) wok. First to arrive was biryani rice crackers, towered high and dressed with pickled ginger and "nahm jim". I'm not going to waste your time attempting to describe everything that goes into Thai dressings (as I'd probably get it wrong anyway, they're usually fabulously complex and contain a bewildering variety of ingredients which change from kitchen to kitchen) but this definitely had at least garlic and chilli in it and was lovely.

Grilled mussel skewers definitely were up there amongst the best things we were served that evening. Marinated in a complex, earthy sauce very different from the winey/citrus notes you would find in Western mussel dishes, they had a wonderful note of charcoal smoke from the clearly very good fuel they were using, and a bewitching texture of just slightly chewy enough and yet yielding perfectly to every bite. They were brilliant, and worthy of the title of "signature dish" just as much as...

... these lovely things, which had been doing the round on social media - fried prawn heads. It is testament to the skill and nous of Kolae that they've taken a bit of the prawn that is usually at least thrown away if not actually not even served in the first place, and turned it into a must-order dish. Fairly similar to the mussels, the coating was earthy - almost soily (but in a good way), with the seafood flavours mixing beautifully with the crispy coating.

Dressed and prepared in a similar way were crispy chicken skins - also dangerously moreish and definitely worth ordering, but it's full disclosure time. Usually it's either the chicken skins or prawns that are available, the former a replacement when they're running low on the latter. We only ended up with both because either they saw us taking photos and put two and two together or (and unfortunately more likely) they overheard us muttering about the missing prawn heads as we looked over the menus. So very many thanks to them for making two food obsessives very happy indeed, and if you're planning your own visit maybe just check they have them on beforehand. Because they are well worth the effort.

All of the 'larger' dishes were noteworthy - you really can't order badly at Kolae, just (as we did) too enthusiastically - but I'm going to say a special word about the "gung siep dried prawn and shrimp paste relish" which arrived next. We were told/warned that the dried prawn was a bit of an acquired taste, and - to put it mildly - isn't for everyone. Kolae could have easily left it off the menu and presumably suffered no major losses, but sometimes a restaurant will put certain dishes on the menu just to provide the exhilaration of the new. With its funky, salty flavour matched with an aroma of old dried fish, tempered only slightly with tomato and chilli and garlic and various pickles, it was unusual and just on the verge of wrong and yet strangely addictive. It was also fiercely hot, which presumably added to its addictive qualities. I absolutely loved this, and yet it's perhaps the kind of thing you only need once in a while - a real rollercoaster of a dish.

I'll talk about the chicken skewers and hogget chops together, as they were great for very similar reasons - a deft skill on the grill, with a rich, complex dressing. Interestingly the hogget wasn't from Warrens (as you might expect from a Smoking Goat-adjacent restaurant)* (again, see edit) but Swaledale, but was still fantastic, the gamey meat standing up very well to the Thai flavours.

Minced venison, with its blisteringly hot chilli spicing, felt to me like a kind of play on a laab. It came dressed in crisp betel leaves, and I don't think I've ever not enjoyed a betel leaf. This was one of those dishes you eat with your mouth painfully on fire but can't stop because it tastes so good, the minced venison studded with nuts (peanuts?) for extra texture. I feel like I'm repeating myself saying it was another must-order.

There was more - a lot more. As I said, we may have gone a bit crazy. But it's hard not to over-order when everything read so well. Sour mango salad with roasted coconut and anchovies had all kinds of different textures and flavours going on, sweet and hot and salty and sour and umami. Kale fritters with fermented chilli were notable not only for the fantastic greaseless crunch of the kale but a lovely sweet/sour broth they were sat in. House pickles were all good but of particular interest were tiny green chillies which were - as you might expect - blazingly hot but also sweet and full of character. Excellent stir fried greens and a bowl of rice also appeared.

Towards the end of the meal we were persuaded to have a dirty martini made with fermented pickle juice, which seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, no, it was a good idea, I have no regrets. And of course, although we couldn't possibly hope to have polished off all of the food we ordered, they happily put the leftovers in boxes to take home, so nothing was wasted.

So, try and ignore that rather inflated bill and imagine which of the above you would have needed to make a satisfying yet sensible meal for yourself. The mussels and prawn heads, definitely. The shrimp relish goes without saying, as does the minced venison. You have to try the herb fritters, too, and the hogget chops, too so don't forget about those and- well, you can see the problem we had. You can eat at Kolae quite cheaply, it's just once you're sat there and are presented with that menu, you may find it impossible. Anyway, however you order, chances are you're going to have a very good time indeed. Just maybe budget for a little bit more than you'd normally expect to eat - you may not be able to help yourself.


EDIT: As I was told perfectly clearly beforehand, Kolae is from the team behind Som Saa, not Smoking Goat, so happy to correct that.